Title: Ascetic

Fandom: Naruto

Rating: T

Pairings/Characters: Ostensibly Madara/Hashirama (the First Hokage), but also Madara/Itachi and... uh, Madara/Tsunade. Sasuke can come too.

Summary: Of roads and repetitions.

Disclaimer: Naruto is the property of Kishimoto Masashi. This was written for the oh_shit_santa gift exchange on Livejournal, as a present for bellicosus.


Ascetic

I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead.

-o-

His first memory is of hunger:

A deep wrenching ache coring at the inner walls of his flesh, always begging for relief but nevertheless cannot be acknowledged, not when it is so starkly reflected in the pale, drawn faces all around him.

The economy of war is a lean science, with no room for imprecision and leniency. A child caught sneaking turnips before dinner can easily be put to death, head cracked open and bloody on a river stone and left for the mouths of roving wolves.

On the battlefield, it is a disgrace to feel pain, and within the fort, it is a disgrace to feel hunger on an empty belly. Courage is a commodity. When the blade writes the rules, the gods favor the richer man.

-o-

The man they call Senju Hashirama, he thinks, cannot have known hunger, and yet his courage shines out from behind his dark eyes like a gem at the bottom of a moonlit well. Courage untested is but an untempered sword, but Hashirama's courage bests him time and time again, so that time and time again he finds himself gasping in the dirt, an iron tang coating his mouth.

The taste of blood. That is Madara's second memory, reinforced each time that the scion of the hated Senju strikes him down.

In disbelief, he takes refuge in what he knows. He starves himself further, hoarding up this poor man's gold, shores up power until his body is crackling with it, threatens to split even as he stretches himself thinner and thinner, rice-milk skin over iron bones.

But still it is not enough, and soon he is back where he started, choking on dust as his enemy walks away from him, long hair like a stroke of ink down his back, dark against the red of his armor.

He never turns around, never looks back at his fallen opponent, and more than even the humiliation of defeat, it is this casual arrogance with which Hashirama confidently turns his back on him that has Madara's vision filming over with rage.

Again and again, they rise and fight, and again and again, he loses and falls.

-o-

One day, insane with lack and incomprehension, he utters a useless question, "Why?"

Unthinkably, Hashirama looks back at him then. His face is impassive, but something like an afterthought passes darkly through his eyes.

"Because," he says, after a moment, "you do not see."

When he puts it like that, it's really quite simple.

Madara may be the strongest of the Uchiha, but that doesn't make him any less prey to their curse. Already his time is running out: each day spent on the battlefield is one less day he will spend in the world of light. He has, so to speak, yet to make the ultimate sacrifice.

He rakes his fingers into the dirt, cracks his bloodied mouth and sucks in a sour breath, and with it, overwhelming esurience. Not enough. More must be given.

His first memory is of hunger; his second, blood. Like twin streams, they crawl through the veins of his life, and the perfect junction where they meet is the occasion of his eighteenth birthday, when he howls with a famished grief as the taste of his brother's blood fills his mouth.

Such is the price to pay for sight.

-o-

Strong now, and emboldened with insidious guilt, he shelves his doubts and rises to fight once more. The changes are immediate, and his rival is quick to notice. From that point on, their battles unfold on even terms. He triumphs almost as often as not, and even when he falls, Hashirama never takes his eyes off him.

From time to time, the disdain in those eyes even seems to waver, shifting into something like a considering look, lingering. It almost makes the sacrifice seem worth it (but no, he mustn't think that).

Once, under a hunter's moon, they tear each other to shreds, until neither can stand for pain and fatigue. In the distance, the rousing war cries of their clansmen grow increasingly nearer, signaling certain death for the both of them. Here, then, must be the crossings where their road comes to an end.

There is relief in Madara's mind as he closes his eyes and slips under the dark water. He thinks he can hear his brother's voice already, beckoning him home.

-o-

A brush through his hair, and he shudders into wakefulness, into pain and confusion. He is no longer lying on the open field, but hidden in the darkness of trees, propped up against gnarly bark. Senju Hashirama is crouching next to him, eyes slit and alert, and even though his heart twists with hatred and his Sharingan burn, he has not the strength to strike.

The sounds of battle float in through the branches, not too close, but not too far. He can tell that Hashirama is injured from the slow, labored way the other man is moving, but there is little doubt that he's come out on top in this particular encounter. Furthermore, Madara owes him his life.

Again, he finds himself asking, "Why?"

Hashirama shrugs. "A worthy opponent is hard to come by," he says, like that explains anything.

Madara tries to speak again, but chokes on a ragged cough. There is a warm wetness seeping through the front of his undershirt, fairly gushing from the wound in his stomach. Before he has time to wonder why Hashirama would save him just to watch him bleed to death, the Senju's leader is pulling a small cloth sack from his weapon pouch, untying the string and scooping a handful of herb into his palm.

"This will staunch the bleeding," he says, peeling open the edges of Madara's torn armor and applying the crushed leaves with practiced hands.

In the moonlight, his eyes shine with a narrowed intensity. A sea-colored jewel glimmers at his throat.

"You seem quite versed in this art," Madara comments, pain-drugged and delirious.

"I enjoy working with medicines," Hashirama replies easily. "Were I not a shinobi, I would be content to run an apothecary. In that life, my hands would smell of water and herbs, not blood and steel."

The curl of wistfulness in his voice surprises them both.

Presently, the battle cries grow faint. Hashirama rises to his feet, appraises his surroundings carefully before looking down at Madara. "Stay here. Our men are retreating. Your comrades should find you soon."

"What do you want?" Madara demands, fighting the burn in his throat. "What would you have me do?"

Hashirama regards him with his usual equanimity. "Live," he instructs, solemn as a command. "Live to fight me again."

-o-

At one point, it occurs to Madara that he has known Hashirama for most of his life, and that, through their endless conflict, they have somehow come to know more about each other than could be said for even other members of their respective families.

In that way, old enemies can be a lot like old friends: unspoken, undemanding, always circling around a common truth.

Of course, they hadn't meant to become that. They just failed to kill each other or get themselves killed one too many times, and now it is too late to do anything about it.

-o-

When the truce is brokered, the entire clan trembles with relief. A decade of war can sap the marrow from the hardest of bones, like a neverending winter, and even the Uchiha—men and women with a fire living in their souls—are all too eager to come in from the cold.

Madara alone is disquieted. In his heart, he can't help but feel he's been cheated out of something.

Hashirama does not seem to partake in his concerns, however, and the moment their weapons are turned aside, he begins to converse with Madara as though they were old friends, friends who just happen to share a tumultuous, somewhat murderous past.

Maybe now the war's over I can finally open that apothecary I always talked about. I suppose that means I'll have to start hitting the books again, and now, would it be too much trouble to ask you to make an appearance at my wedding banquet?

Then comes the birth of Konohagakure. The issue of the village's leadership arises, and the rhetoric changes:

It should be you and I. Our clans are the most powerful and influential in the land, and with the two of us as leaders, we can bring the village to its feet and guide the Leaf shinobi to a bright and peaceful future, think of it, just think of it.

Promises. Beautiful, glistening promises.

But it all comes to naught. Water and oil cannot mix, and even though Hashirama's—no, Shodaime's promises run like water over smooth stones, blood is thicker than.

But by the time he wipes the gold dust from his crusted eyes, he realizes he has lost his clan to Konoha. The war is over. Times are good and the living is easy, and as their bodies grow round with plenty and indolence, the Uchiha forget the hunger, forget to keep their fallow eyes open to the road ahead. Each and everyone of them is hopelessly infatuated with hope, wooed by the glittering words of a charismatic man.

In some ways, it is hard to blame them, because once upon a time, Madara could not look away either.

-o-

When he finally leaves, it seems like a natural course of action. Abandoned by the clan he has toiled so long to protect, he doesn't expect to be followed, and is understandably surprised to find his way obstructed.

In retrospect, he shouldn't have been. This road was carved out for them long before either could have been aware of it. Time and time again they will meet, and time and time again the story will play itself out, for this is the terror of existence: all things in this world are doomed for repetition.

He can remember the taste of lightning in the air and the distinct absence of bodyguards and the dead leaves squelching under his feet and:

Hashirama, imperious with fury, with the dignity of his office, saying: "This is treason."

The sound of his own voice, saying: "I am not a subject under your rule."

Saying: "If anything, you owe a fief to me for your trespassing."

Because the truth is there is no other truth than this. The world has always set the two of them apart, put them on a pedestal and drawn a blazing circle around it, wherein neither can be touched by anyone but the other. This is and has always been deeply personal. They are neither friends not enemies, but equals, and are very much treading on unhallowed ground.

Hashirama's hand is on his shoulder. His gentle, could-have-been healer's hand. "If only," he murmurs, "I could have…"

Still speaking in the language of ideals. Perhaps he has not yet realized that, in this hanging space between intention and action, between a beginning and an end, no one else exists but them.

Madara kisses him to prove it.

Beneath the ridge of Hashirama's strong jaw is the flawless column of his neck, and under that pumps the lifeblood that wins wars and cures sickness and gives hope to a generation of shinobi. Madara can feel it thrumming against the pads of his fingers, and it would be almost effortless to lean over and rip it out in a snap of teeth, spill the crimson wet over the forest floor.

Instead, Madara peels him out of that damning red-and-white cloak. Works himself inside Hashimara's clothes and sinks his teeth into a muscled shoulder, filling his mouth with blood. Pulls back and loosens his own clothes, strips himself and bares his skin like an offering.

With bitter adoration, he issues the final challenge into a crook of his rival's skin.

"Live to fight me again."

And that is exactly what he does.

-o-

When the road next loops and they meet again, it is once more as challenger and defender, acting out a setpiece preordained by the laws of their destiny.

The world shakes with a dull roar under a hunter's moon, and this time, there will be no whims of mercy to save either. Sick with madness, he calls upon the demonic power of the ancient world to help him wreak his vengeance. Hell answers, and with the combined strength they rearrange the landscape, but against them Heaven and Earth stand firm.

Again they rise and fight, and again, he is the one to fall.

In the end, he can only watch, hate-stricken, as those hands that would never smell of water and herbs raise the sword to cut him down for the last time.

His victor stands above him now, sorrow-stained eyes over grim-set mouth. "Sleep well," he says, granting a lofty valediction before turning to walk away, and Madara is left to clutch the edges of his skin to his body as he dies.

-o-

But because he has been ordered to live, he is reborn.

A lesser being in this incarnation, but even that is not enough to quench his hunger. Years pass before he deems his new form strong enough to return to Konoha—in secret, accepting that he can no longer afford to take risks as before. Again, he comes seeking the Hokage's death.

And unexpectedly finds it.

Fate is merciless with its sleights of hand. A border skirmish, a stray arrow, a dimwitted subordinate in the wrong place at the wrong time, and then tragedy unfolds. A hero's death robs Madara of his rightful retribution, and he can only laugh at the irony.

His killer dies, and he lives on.

As was the late Hokage's wish, the Will of Fire is passed down through the generations, and the first bearer of the torch is his own younger brother. If Senju Hashirama were the earth that holds and nourishes the great tree, then Senju Tobirama would be the winding stream that twines secretly around its roots. A shrewd man, he cleverly tightens the exquisite knot, and ties the once-indomitable Uchiha Clan irrevocably to his yoke.

It is too late to save them, Madara knows, even if this time around, they truly wanted to be saved.

The tight hollowness inside his intestines twists, and urges him to move on.

He leaves.

-o-

The beauty of existence is: all things in this world are doomed for repetition.

Eventually, all paths overlap. It's just a matter of how long you're willing to wait.

Madara has a lot of time on his hands, and as many roads to tread.

-o-

The years tumble past. He waits.

All shinobi villages are the same at the core, and as he passes through countless, countless numbers of them on his aimless journey, drifting through the drowning sea of their ceaseless humanity, he feels as though he is unraveling himself, the web of his memory unspooling into wispy, fragile threads.

He is hungry still, ravening with a craving that nothing could satisfy. The hunger never leaves him, and in the end, it becomes his only companion through those lonely years of waiting.

Emptiness signifies expectation, an open-mouthed wish.

At some point, hunger and blood become hunger for blood, and he squanders years in meaningless slaughter, driven by a mindless need for something that he does not understand. He runs and runs, runs for decades, chasing shadows and ghosts, but when he opens his eyes again and remembers, remembers, his purpose swirls back at him as though all the long years were but a shuttering of an eye.

Beneath all the layers that he acquires and discards like garments, he is still the same.

So for now, he will wait. He will wait until the next age of the world.

-o-

The seasons turn as the road endlessly circles, and nearly half a century has rolled by before he encounters a face from the past.

Amber eyes and sunny hair across an open-air market, and his heart leaps and plummets at the sight of the woman—a child of five when he last saw her, a brief, inconsequential glimpse at a funeral wake he had no business attending. Even accounting for their difference in age, she looks young, younger than she should, and her glamour jutsu gleams with such emptiness that he senses the company of a kindred spirit.

When they meet face to face, she does not recognize him. He has changed much over the years, is constantly changing still, and like her, has no inclination of wearing his true face. Faces cast reflections.

They talk over a game of cards. She loses, badly, but he offers to buy her a drink anyway.

One drink turns into two, then four, then seven, and before they know it, they're kissing and fumbling in the dim light of her room. If she notices his eyes lingering on the jewel at her neck, she doesn't show it. The soul that shines out from under her powdery skin is so achingly familiar that for a moment he feels almost five decades younger, and just as foolish as he was then.

But Tsunade is broken, and here the resemblance flickers and fades. Something or someone has stolen her spirit, and perhaps one day she will retrieve it, and perhaps not, but even though Madara is willing to wait for a lot of things, he has no time for this.

As an act of mercy (the most merciless of acts), he leaves without slitting her throat, and he is drifting still, carved hollow and ceaselessly spinning.

-o-

Nevertheless, this meeting has given him an idea.

Blood, like will, can pass down through the years, so when he skirts the borders of Konoha for a second time, it is as man who has come searching for his own.

This time, fate decides to reward him for his forbearance.

Slender hands on his body, little lips on his neck, and Itachi twists Madara's wrists viciously like he longs to hear the splinter of bone.

Blood does not stray. A relentless martyr with violently misanthropic tendencies, Itachi is, Madara thinks, more like him than any Uchiha ever was, and any Uchiha will ever be. A perfect candidate to bring his story to completion; a repetition to end all repetition.

But Itachi is not durable, and here the resemblance crumbles and dissipates. Even at thirteen, that perfect tender age when they first meet, the smell of disease is thick on his breath, the fever of a fatalistic purpose glowing in his bottomless eyes. Madara does not need clairvoyance to know that the boy is not long for this world. Perhaps that is why he rushes through these motions of living with such urgency.

He enjoys Itachi, true, but all too soon, he will be over, over, over.

(And besides, no one could ever compare.)

But all is not lost. Itachi, too, has a brother. His most precious person is a child innocent and pure as the driven snow, just waiting for someone to pick him up and break him across their knee. Once Itachi is done with him, Madara will be all too willing to pick up the slack.

So he lets the dices roll, and settles back down to wait.

And wait.

And wait.

-o-

Yet more years pass, until one day, a sloe-eyed avenger of sixteen comes to stand before him.

In many ways, Sasuke is much better-suited to serve his purpose than even his brother. Not out of his personal merits—though he is brittle enough and has certainly lost enough to be useful—but because he has already found his equal, even if he does not know it yet.

They say that there is no such thing as coincidences, and for the most part, Madara agrees. It can be no coincidence that the container of the Kyuubi, the last missing piece in his elaborate puzzle, is yet another torch-bearer, a holder of the Will. It is no coincidence. Blood will tell.

And if Madara knows nothing of this boy (this replica in flesh and spirit), he does know this: that he is bright and golden in every way that matters, and Sasuke, too, cannot look away, no matter how much he likes to believe otherwise.

They say that history repeats itself only when no one bothers to remember the past, but on that count, they are wrong. His memory is long, spanning the white vista of years, and he remembers every useless variation, every shriveled-up wish, every turn in the road that spirals back to where it all started.

There are two.

Round and round they go, tied to each other by the wrists, and again and again, the same story plays itself out.

Two will rise.

One will fall.

But this time, the world will fall with him.

After all, he understands now that one replacement cannot end the bitter cycle.

Destiny only works in pairs.

-o-

The hunger is still there, scratch-scratch-scratching at the door.

It tears and burns, demanding to be relieved, and at times, he feels weary enough to consider giving in.

No, no. Not yet.

Just a little more.

It is a disgrace to feel hunger on an empty belly. It is a disgrace to feel this pain.

Do without until victory

-o-

With impatience only youth can afford, Sasuke readjusts the collars of his winter cloak and asks, "When?"

"Soon," Madara replies. "You must wait."

"I've waited long enough," Sasuke snarls, but he knows nothing of it.

They stand at the tip of a narrow rocky parapet, in the swirling snow, and above their heads the grey clouds are so big and heavy and near he thinks he can almost touch them, reach up and step right through them into the trembling Heaven above.

There is time enough for that.

All the pieces are falling into place. The story is about to come full circle, and when it does, the world as they know it will submit to his will. In doing so, it will die, and be reborn.

The certainty of this rumbles in his bones like thunder.

And when all the living universe has become one with him, perhaps he will march up right to Heaven's gate, and tear it asunder. He will drag from behind the cleaved walls the body and soul of the man who started it all ( what was his name?), who brought the curse of repetition onto Madara (how did he do it?).

Memory works in strange ways, and after all these years of waiting, he isn't sure if he remembers everything right anymore.

Nevertheless, he will close his spidery fingers around that proud neck, and with the weight of the universe pressing against his teeth, will say, "You stole my birthrights from me."

He will say, "Now give yourself to me in return," as the light fades from those dark eyes.

But, for now, he is willing to wait. He has waited long enough. The only thing left to wait for now is the end to waiting.

Beside him, Sasuke shifts restlessly, and frowns into the deepening horizon, eyes strained on some invisible object in the rapidly approaching future.

Heaven does not yet know the length to which he is willing to go to get his wish.

Heaven will learn.

-o-

The End